Talking Journeys, Objects and Mothers with Swoon

The artist Swoon is known for both her street art and her performance projects that involve group voyages, such as the "Swimming Cities of the Switchback Sea," (2008) a journey along the Hudson River, and the "Swimming Cities of Serenissima," (2009) a journey from Slovenia to Venice on the Adriatic Sea. Her site-specific installation Submerged Motherlands is on view at the Brooklyn Museum until August 24. I sat down with her at Four and Twenty Blackbirds in Brooklyn to discuss her current and past work.

SUSAN: Could we start by discussing the genesis of Submerged Motherlands and what you saw as the central ideas behind the piece?

SWOON: Sure. So the Brooklyn Museum contacted me to do an installation a couple of years ago, and I started talking about the idea of bringing the boats back home [from Italy]. They started in New York on the Hudson -- actually in Troy -- and so they made this trip down the Hudson to New York City to these figures that were their docking place that umbilically tied them in. It was like they were searching for safe harbor. And then we took them to Venice in shipping containers, not over [the] sea, and we reassembled them in Koper, Slovenia, which is the region where all of the trees were felled for Venice to be built. They had these huge trees; actually, I think they basically clear-cut that whole area to build Venice. So we ended up re-assembling in that area and then making a journey skirting the sea, going into the canals and then ending up in Venice. And then I thought: maybe the boats will be done after that. But as we were pulling them out of the water, they just looked like such crazy beasts when they were getting crane-lifted out, and I was like: I think these need to be seen one more time, kind of as objects.

SUSAN: And you seem really interested in these objects in relationship to the environment and concerns about climate change.

SWOON: So much about the boats for me was always this loose narrative of thinking about climate change, and thinking about floods, and thinking about the idea of the coastal purchase of cities breaking off and then traveling and mutating and changing. It was a slightly fantastical image both of urban vulnerability and of something that was a little bit more an intuitive daydream. And at the time when I first made the boats in 2008, strangely, nobody really wanted to talk about it -- when I would talk to interviewers or whatever, they would never repeat that back, and thinking about climate change would never get into print. And then Sandy happened in New York, and I was like: This thinking now feels tangible to people, so maybe this is an interesting time to bring those boats back and to re-look at some of our understandings around the vulnerability of New York City. And I also felt that the narrative of these boats was a search for a home port. And then at the Brooklyn Museum, I made this tree, and the tree was one of those things where I was trying to think: What is a central image? And I was just working in Haiti and sitting under this incredible cacao tree, and it clicked as feeling like the right thing to rise up into that space, but to sort of contain that feeling of awe and humility at the same time. I had originally been thinking I might create a human portrait on that scale. But imagine how menacing that ultimately would be.

SUSAN: Honestly -- it would be like a colossus. Like Ancient Rome or something.

SWOON: Yes, and I thought: Maybe we don't want to create a heroic human right now. I really want to think in a different way. And so the tree popped into place, and then this other process happened as I was building out the installation. I started with this image of the boats, which are so much about climate change and vulnerability and this seasonal kind of journey, and then I started to build in a lot of the portraits, and then actually while I was working on it, my mother passed away, and so all of a sudden while I had been thinking about loss of homeland, I was thinking about the loss of my own mother. And so this double narrative started to happen. There's this group that I met in Brazil that's fighting the Brazilian government's construction of dams along the Amazon and Xingu Rivers, which were part of the ecosystem, and it's f*cking up their way of life. You know, these are people that only made contact with Europeans like 50 years ago and are doing fine. And there is this slow encroachment. So I was thinking about their threatened loss of motherland and also doing this project in Braddock, which is a town outside of Pittsburgh that has suffered its loss of industry, and it has lost itself in this other way, which for me is really interesting: to look at them as opposite sides of the same coin. One is this industry, and the other is something that's being threatened by industry. And so I was thinking about people losing homelands or fighting to put their lives back together after this process of industrialization and the way that it all leads to climate change. And then I was thinking about these things in a very personal way with the loss of my mother and that original homeland, and all of those narratives just kind of overlaid and wove themselves together to make Submerged Motherlands.

SUSAN: So thinking a little bit more about the boats. Just on a practical level, could you talk about how they were built and how you all lived on them? I think this idea of the communal is really interesting since a lot of archetypal journeys tend to privilege a solitary figure, even if the solitary figure is with his compatriots. So could you talk about the boats as material objects and as micro-communities?

SWOON: So I found myself thinking an awful lot about boats, and building a boat, and about making this trip, and I just kept talking about it to all my friends until people who had similar interests. And so finally a friend and I hit upon an idea not of a boat, but of a raft, and suddenly when the raft idea took the place of the boat, things clicked into place and it felt like: Oh, okay -- a raft feels like something that we non-sea-faring, ridiculous artist types can sort of understand how it works. And so we started to reach out and find some raft builders, and we ended up finding Shawn Kelly Neutrino, who had lived and worked with the Floating Neutrinos, this group of people that were kind of a funny, cult-y, awesome, weird hippie group in the'70s and '80s. And so Shawn taught us the style that they had developed. We kind of took it on and developed it ourselves, and when I say "we," I mean me and a bunch of friends. So there's a guy Jeff Stark who lives nearby who's done a bunch of cool projects. I connected with him first, and we set about building a team. Then we started to pre-build, and we made our way out to Minneapolis, and we finished putting it together, and then we started down from Minneapolis [on the Mississippi River], and it took us two years during the summer. And it was just the most incredible experience: just living together in this intense, communal way, and making your way down these rivers, and camping, and there was this wildness to it that I've kind of never seen again in my life. I kind of miss it.

SUSAN: It's an amazing idea: that you have all these people on these rafts, and you're always together. Was there any privacy on the boats?

SWOON: Kind of. In two different ways. Oftentimes, you would just be somewhere and you'd be like: Wow. I'm just watching the sea. There's nobody around me. How do I feel like I'm just in my own zone right now? There's that. And then when the boats would dock, everyone would just scatter. And everyone would just find crazy abandoned places to sleep and ending up exploring all kinds of stuff on their own or in groups and just finding ways to make your own little bit of psychological space because you are living in such close quarters.

SUSAN: Was there was a big difference traveling by sea versus by river, either practically or conceptually? Does it mean something different to cross a sea than it does to be carried along by a river?

SWOON: Yeah. We didn't actually do a crossing [of the Adriatic]. We skirted the coast. But being out to sea was incredible. Being like: Oh I can't see land, and I'm on this piece of bullsh*t. That's really cool.

SUSAN: Were you guys ever scared? Because there's something inspirationally terrifying about building a raft and then setting out to sea on it.

SWOON: Oh yeah. You could have your moments where you'd reckon with it, and you'd be like Whoa, this is crazy. But that would wear off pretty quickly, and then you would just get scared if giant waves came, and you'd be like: "Oh, we cannot handle this. We're going to die now." And so that's why we skirted the coast -- because we really can't take much weather on those vessels. I don't know; I might be wrong. Poppa Neutrino did an ocean crossing on a boat that was built in much the same way.

SUSAN: How did the practice of collecting influence Submerged Motherlands or your previous work? I'm thinking in particular about curiosity cabinets and bringing together all sorts of objects in one place.

SWOON: Well, there's one boat that didn't become part of the installation because it didn't make it. So I had to change my plan a little bit, and I ended up building the mother temple piece that's in there. And actually, I was glad that that happened because like I said, my mother passed away during the conceptualization of the installation. So it felt to me like a little bit more honest about my own experience: to have that piece that was so much about my mother. But the boat that got left out was actually a cabinet of curiosity. It ended up being a cabinet of disgusting dead things.

SUSAN: That's the best kind of cabinet, right? So taxidermy and things like that? Cabinets of curiosity always contain such strange combinations of objects.

SWOON: Those initial cabinet of curiosities -- whatever their flaws and that crazy Victorian colonialism -- pique this wonderment. This desire to know things. So the boat that didn't show up was a cabinet of curiosity, and we built little drawers in it and shelves, and we just collected things along the way. It was pretty haphazard; it never got to be a really intricate beautiful space that I would have loved it to be, but that was just because it's so hard to live on the water. I think the cabinets are really about this feeling of wonder, which brings me back to the installation, because in the absence of religious and spiritual spaces, we still really need spaces of wonder. They don't have to be about a specific religious narrative, but they have the capacity to transport you into a different state of mind. And for me, I feel both a desire to experience it and to make it. So when they showed me around the Brooklyn Museum and said, "Where do you want to work?" they were like, "We knew you were going choose that f*cking room." There's just this feeling of creating something that part of our spirit can rise into.

Courtesy of Brooklyn Museum